‘She was continually challenging the boundaries of genre … She was someone who wrote all the time, and by the end she was writing on everything.’

The manuscripts of Emily Dickinson have long been scattered across multiple archives, meaning scholars had to knock on numerous doors to see all the handwritten drafts of a poet whose work went almost entirely unpublished in her lifetime.

The online Emily Dickinson Archive, inaugurated on October 23, promises to change all that by bringing together on a single open-access web site thousands of manuscripts held by Harvard University, Amherst College, the Boston Public Library and five other institutions. Now, scholars and lay readers alike will be able to browse easily through handwritten versions of favourite poems, puzzle over lines that snake along the edges of used envelopes and other scraps of paper, or zoom in on one of Dickinson’s famous dashes until it almost fills the screen.

“To have all these manuscripts together on one site and to have it so thoroughly searchable is extraordinary,” said Cristanne Miller, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a member of the project’s advisory board.

Harvard versus Amherst

But the project, organised and financed by Harvard, has also generated enough behind the scenes intrigue to fill an imaginary Journal of Emily Dickinson Studies Studies, as one board member jokingly put it.

Since planning began two years ago, there has been a revival of decades-old tensions between Harvard and Amherst, which hold the two largest Dickinson collections. And sometimes-bitter debate has flared on the advisory board, with some members saying that Harvard’s choice of which materials to include provides too narrow an answer to a basic question: Just what counts as an Emily Dickinson “poem,” anyway?

“The scholarship with any major figure produces factions and divisions,” said Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson scholar at Mount Holyoke College, who is not involved with the project. “But with Dickinson, the truly bizarre thing is the quarrel has been handed to generation after generation after generation.”

The trouble began when Dickinson died, in 1886, leaving behind just 10 published poems and a vast and enigmatic handwritten paper trail, ranging from finished-seeming poems assembled into hand-sewn books to fragments inscribed on advertising fliers, envelope flaps, brown household paper, even a chocolate wrapper.

After finding a cache of writings in a locked chest, Dickinson’s sister Lavinia gave them first to Susan Dickinson, the wife of their brother, Austin, to organise and publish. When Susan worked too slowly, the papers went to Austin’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who helped edit the first published edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Todd subsequently claimed ownership to some manuscripts, furthering a long-running legal dispute called “the war between the houses.”

Material from Austin’s descendants went to Harvard in 1950, while Todd’s material went to Amherst in 1956. Since then, there have been tensions over copyright and boasting over whose collection is bigger and better.

“They have the furniture, we have the daguerreotype; they have the herbarium, we have the hair,” said Michael Kelly, the head of archives and special collections at the Frost Library at Amherst and a member of the online archive’s advisory board.

But last week casual trash-talk turned to sharper jostling, when Amherst had one of its lawyers call Harvard to demand that it provide Amherst with digital copies of its Dickinson holdings as specified in a July agreement between the institutions.

“No one ever threatened a lawsuit,” Mr. Kelly said of the exchange, which was reported on Sunday by The Boston Globe. “We were just reminding them that we had an agreement. They have followed it to the letter.”

Harvard insists that it has not been trying to outmuscle anyone. “I’m disappointed to be pulled back to a situation from the past, where ownership is the most important thing,” said Leslie M. Morris, the curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Houghton Library at Harvard and the project’s general editor. Last year Amherst posted all its Dickinson manuscripts on an open-access website. Harvard, however, has until now allowed little of its Dickinson material to be publicly available online. But the aim of the joint digital archive, Ms. Morris said, “was to downplay the issue of ownership and focus on Emily Dickinson and her manuscripts.”

Dickinson scholars have long hotly argued over questions like her sexuality and her reasons for not publishing, along with issues that might strike ordinary readers as bafflingly arcane, from the precise angle and length of her dashes to the significance of the way she stacked the pages of her handmade books before sewing them together.

And the advisory board found itself sometimes harshly divided over basic philosophical issues, starting with Harvard’s decision to limit the digital archive to manuscripts relating to the 1,789 poems identified in Ralph Franklin’s three-volume Poems of Emily Dickinson, published in 1998 by Harvard University Press.

‘Missed opportunity’

“What this site does is reaffirm that Franklin’s text is the ultimate authority, instead of opening it up,” Mr. Kelly said. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

By leaving out most of Dickinson’s so-called scraps (as scholars somewhat reluctantly call the fragments from after 1875, when she seems to have stopped copying out clean versions of poems), along with passages from letters not included in Mr. Franklin’s edition but identified by other experts as poems, the archive plays down Dickinson’s evolution toward more radically experimental forms, some scholars assert.

“She was continually challenging the boundaries of genre,” said Marta Werner, a professor at D’Youville College in Buffalo and the creator of “Radical Scatters,” a 1999 digital project based on the scraps, which are mostly held by Amherst. “She was someone who wrote all the time, and by the end she was writing on everything.”

Such matters may seem irrelevant to people who come to the web site for the sheer pleasure of looking at Dickinson’s often startlingly beautiful manuscripts (some festooned with dried flowers or doodles), or comparing the poems as they appeared in her handwriting to printed versions in six published editions, including Mr. Franklin’s.

More material will be added to the archive in future phases, Ms Morris said. Meanwhile, the arty, avant-garde Dickinson is getting her due elsewhere. In November, 50 of the scraps will be on view at the Drawing Center in Manhattan. And “The Gorgeous Nothings,” Ms Werner’s $3,500 artist book based on Dickinson’s envelope poems (created with Jen Bervin), was re-released in a $40 version by New Directions. To some scholars, however, focussing on Dickinson’s more visually arresting fragments exaggerates her isolation from the literary conventions of her time. Ms. Miller, the author of the recent book Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century, noted that while Dickinson’s notions of her writing no doubt changed through her life, the bulk of her surviving poetry was copied out in clean copies, with most scraps and drafts seemingly discarded.

Of course, Ms Miller added with a laugh, the unprecedented visibility of the manuscripts may just lead to more scholarship focused on the idiosyncratic, handwritten Dickinson.

“When you can see something, you want to think it matters,” she said. “And the manuscripts really are marvellous. There’s an aura to these things.” — New York Times News Service

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